Photography, which once centered on capturing a single unique moment, has since become a medium to curate life as it is lived, said Marita Sturken at her lecture, entitled “Kodak, Polaroid, and Facebook: The Shaping of Memory, Family Pictures, and Photography of the Self,” in Cushing 001 last Thursday.
Sturken, who is a professor at the New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, discussed how photography, from Kodak to Facebook, has shaped the history of personal and collective memory. The American Studies Program and the Institute for the Liberal Arts sponsored the talk. Sturken has written two books: Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, and Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering.
Sturken began by showing the Google Chrome advertisement “Dear Sophie,” which shows a father cultivating an online trove for his newborn daughter-he sends her emails and posts videos and pictures documenting her childhood. The video helped demonstrate Google’s market dominance as well as its role in self-cultivation.
Prior to delving into the effects of Google and social media on self-cultivation, however, Sturken backtracked and brought up several business principles to frame the cultural discussion. First, she noted, is that market dominance leads to creative stagnation. Second, corporations are often playing catch-up in both technological and market research to determine what their consumers want. Third, there is an important relationship between products and net profits, which is exemplified in the “razorblade strategy”-a razor is cheap, but razorblades are expensive, and these constitute much of the profit for a company.
“The razorblade strategy refers to the way corporations sell consumers devices at low cost or give it to them it for free that then allows companies to sell overpriced products that are needed to use those original devices,” she said. “In ways, they are relatively hidden from the consumers, or at least they used to be.”
One of the first industries to employ this strategy was the photography industry. Kodak and Polaroid sold very cheap cameras to consumers but made much of their money from film processing. This film processing became largely irrelevant with the advent of the Internet, so social media takes the razorblade strategy further by selling personal data online, she said.
“The razorblade strategy may seem quaint, but it’s proven a certain kind of longevity in the digital age,” she said. “Today, the free services of social media like Facebook, or the platform of Google with Google Chrome and Gmail take the razorblade further, redefining it not as the value of the secondary product, like film, but its the value of delivering users and their data to marketers and corporations.”
Sturken then moved on to discuss Kodak and Polaroid and how they shaped self-cultivation. Kodak exemplified family photography: the “Kodak moment” refers to special events like birthdays and weddings. Polaroid, its “hip counterpart,” is a post-war company that is a marker of convenience and instant gratification-it is defined by art, hipsters, and sex, she said.
“The equation of photography and memory is one that is dependent on the other,” she said. “The photographical Kodak moment is shadowed by the unphotographed forgettable moment. Both Kodak and Polaroid are influential in establishing a set of visual consumer practices.”
Even now, when both companies have faced bankruptcy, the way in which they deal with their finances shows their differences, Sturken said. Kodak’s afterlife is based on the company’s intellectual property, whereas Polaroid has teamed up with Lady Gaga and has ultimately spawned a collector, DIY-type following-it is still attempting to be relevant to certain niches, she said.
“Polaroid is actually a subject for nostalgia rather than simply a vehicle for it,” Sturken said.
Ultimately, the legacy of self-cultivation lies with social media platforms, primarily Facebook, as opposed to cameras. Sturken showed an advertisement for Timeline that featured a man’s life viewed through pictures and videos on Facebook. The advertisement exemplifies how self-curating has changed: life is no longer a series of unique Kodak moments, but rather an accumulation of images, often of the mundane. The ease with which multiple images can be shared on platforms like Facebook and Instagram has created this change, she said.
“Behind this practice is the notion that we are curating our activities for future viewers, including ourselves,” she said. “What we’re dealing with here is less about wanting to share ones past than it is about wanting to update who we are right now.”